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Stronger language rights for EU citizens in criminal trials

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MEPs backed today new measures to guarantee EU citizens access to translation and interpretation in their own language when facing a criminal trial in another Member State. Talks will now begin with the Council with the aim of reaching a compromise before the summer. The initiative was put forward by 13 Member States and is the first step in a series of measures designed to lay down common EU standards in criminal law cases.

The draft directive aims to set common minimum standards on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal cases throughout the EU. It will improve the rights of suspects who do not understand or speak the language of the proceedings. A British football fan arrested in Portugal would, under the proposed rules, have the right to interpretation during an inquiry, for example during police questioning, and in order to communicate with lawyers. A defendant should, say MEPs, be able to explain his version of the events to his legal counsel, point out any statements with which he disagrees and make his legal counsel aware of any facts that should be put forward in his defence. All essential documents should also be translated into the defendant's language.

According to the Civil Liberties Committee, a suspect or accused person must have access to interpretation and translation during all phases of criminal proceedings, from the time he is questioned or arrested until all appeals are exhausted. These rights must be guaranteed in criminal proceedings "of every kind", including the pre-trial, sentencing, detention and any appeal phases, until the proceedings are finally concluded.

The assistance given should cover communications between the suspect and his lawyer and essential documents such as the decision depriving him of his liberty, the charge/indictment and key documentary evidence. It must be of a quality sufficient to ensure he is able to understand the case against him and exercise his rights. It should also cover the rules of detention, including how to seek information and make complaints, and official contacts between the detaining authorities and the suspect, say MEPs.

Appropriate assistance should also be provided to individuals suffering from physical or learning disabilities which affect their ability to communicate effectively, such as hearing or speech impediments.

Audio and video recording

When interviews with a suspect have been conducted by police or prosecutors with the aid of an interpreter or when there is a waiver of rights, an audio and a video recording should be made and should be provided to any party in the event of a dispute, adds the committee.

If personal attendance of an interpreter is impossible, such as in an emergency situation or when rarer languages and dialects are involved, technology such as video links, telephone or internet access may be employed as a "last resort", proposes the committee. This option should however not be used for proceedings taking place in court.

Accreditation of translators and interpreters

To guarantee a high standard of interpretation and translation and efficient access to it, the committee wants Member States to put in place a system of training, qualification and accreditation of translators and interpreters for legal work. It also say that a national register of independent professional translators and interpreters who are so qualified must be established and be available, on a cross-border basis, to lawyers and relevant authorities.

Member States must also ensure that training is offered to judges, prosecutors, lawyers, police and relevant court personnel in order for them to be able to assess the suspect's linguistic needs, ensure his ability to understand the proceedings, and assess the quality of interpretation and translation.

Translation and interpretation costs will have to be met by the Member State, not by the suspect. "Any extra costs that the directive will impose on Member States are the irreducible cost of ensuring fair trials and avoiding miscarriages of justice and will in any case be balanced by fewer costly appeals and delays", said rapporteur Sarah Ludford (ALDE, UK).

Rules will apply to European Arrest Warrant cases

The draft law will also apply to European Arrest Warrant cases. Some 11,000 European arrest warrants were issued in 2007, up from 6,900 in 2005. All such warrants will in future be covered by EU standards on the right to interpretation and translation.

This initiative was presented in December 2009 by 13 Member States (Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Spain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Hungary, Austria, Portugal, Romania, Finland and Sweden). In the meantime, on 9 March, the European Commission decided to table a proposal on the same subject. The report by Sarah Ludford is based on the Member States' initiative.

The UK has notified its wish to participate in the adoption and application of this directive.

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